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Shadowbound

Kathlena L. Contreras

Shadowbound cover

For the price of a loaf of bread, young Jen spins her spells in the squalid marketplaces of the City’s slums. But when her father sells her to the wizard Barras for gold, Jen finds herself bound to a man who holds her utterly in his power.
So begin five years of reluctant apprenticeship, while Jen schemes to open a gateway to the Otherworlds, her only hope of escaping Barras’ binding. Yet she remains blind to another, more profound binding—the abuse she suffered as a girl that poisons her soul and allows a dark and ancient entity housed in a black stone to entice her into its power with promises of freedom. Before she can resist the whispers of the malevolent spirit beguiling her into evil, Jen must first conquer the darkness within her.

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Prologue

“How much do you want for the girl?” A man’s voice, low and compelling, spoke from the main room of the house.

Jen froze in the doorway of her room, then retreated.  Familiar close darkness enfolded her, full of the scents of onions and apples and stone, the dry, earthy smell of potatoes, the moldy smell of cheese in its rind. Two backward steps and her calves bumped her cot. It creaked and scooted on the earthen floor. She jumped as if an unseen intruder had breathed on her neck. There was no one, but in this room, in the dark, she always felt there was.

The room was too small to hope to hide in—little more than a closet holding close its sacks and barrels and shelves, and her cot. Dug, stone by stone, out of the hulking mass of the City Wall, the room offered no exit other than the curtained doorway.

Jen cursed under her breath, rancid curses learned from years on the City streets. She did not know the voice, but the man must be the same she’d seen in the marketplace.

Surely her father would turn him out, would lie and say that all his daughters were grown and gone. Jen might be only a girl, but she brought in money. Every day she brought in coppers and ivories, and bags of fruit, sometimes even a fowl or a basket of eggs.

That was why she went to the marketplaces and the squares, to be valuable, so her father would never think of selling her. To be sold like her sister—to become a possession, like a cookpot or a hen… The thought made her sick and frantic.

She heard the man’s quiet cultured voice, then her father’s replies, crass and uncouth by comparison. Heard numbers spoken, fifteen, twenty-seven, thirty-three.

Jen’s heart thumped, quick like that of a hunted thing. She held her breath and darted across the shadowed hallway to her brothers’ room.

Rik was up, peering around a fold of his own door curtain. Col was in bed, sleeping or pretending to sleep. Jen grabbed Rik in passing, jerked him away from the doorway.

“Who’s that man?” Rik hissed, glaring as if she were responsible for the intruder’s presence. Rik was twelve and thought himself nearly a man.

She had no time to waste on questions. She was still dressed in the knee-length breeches and vest and oversized shirt that let her pass for a boy on the city streets. No one would notice another boy roaming the streets after dark.

“Boost me,” she whispered, heading straight for the tiny window on the opposite wall.

Rik folded his arms. “You know who he is.” With his dark blond hair sticking up in tufts and angles, he looked like an irritated porcupine. “Tell me.”

Rik would do nothing until she answered. He was a boy, accustomed to getting what he wanted.

“I dunno who he is,” she said. “I seen him at the back of the crowd at market today, watching.”

And she had sensed someone hunting her through the labyrinthine streets all the way home. The tricks she’d thrown in his way should’ve thrown him off the scent. Obviously, they hadn’t.

“What’d you do?” Rik demanded. “You did the big stuff, huh? Threw lights and fire. Disappeared. Somebody called you a street-corner witch, and you had to prove ’em wrong.”

Col had one open eye above his blanket now, and it rolled from his brother to Jen. Ignoring Rik’s accusations, she made a wiggling motion with her fingers, pretending to cast a spell, and the eye disappeared.

“I didn’t. Only little stuff. Birds out of my sleeves. A mouse from under a man’s hat.”

And the usual, reading stones and bones and palms, twisting willow sticks into baby amulets. Nothing big, she knew better than that.

“You gonna boost me, or do I gotta drag a barrel over from my room?”

“No,” Rik said with a jeering grin. “Just disappear. I seen you do it before.”

“In here, you dizzard? It’s too small! They’d just have to stick out their hands to find me!”

Rik only stared with that lopsided grin.

The blanket on Col’s cot burst open like a seed pod. A thin boy emerged, with big brown eyes and curls as untidy as Jen’s own. Without glancing at his older brother, Col hurried to her, bent on one knee and laced his fingers.

“Quick, Jen,” he whispered. “Don’t come back tonight.”

She hugged her youngest brother quickly and planted a bare foot in his palms. “Not tonight,” she agreed. “Maybe not for a couple days.”

She grabbed the splintery window frame. Col strained, she heaved and worked head and shoulders out.

Col whispered, pushing at her, “I’ll put the red stone by the door if it’s safe—”

He stopped speaking. A hand caught hold of Jen’s belt and pulled her back. Splinters raked her belly. The window frame rapped her head.

“Gently, gently,” a deep voice said as she landed in a heap against the wall.

Her father stood over her, thin face bunched in fury, lank blond hair messier than usual. Behind him stood the man she’d seen in the marketplace, although then, from a distance, she’d only been able to make out fine clothes and dark hair. Now she saw that hair, interspersed with threads of iron grey, fell in thick waves to his shoulders, and that his face was stern and lined.

Storm-grey eyes took her in whole, gave her own image back: thin wiry frame that could pass as a boy’s, an exuberance of short curls the color of well-steeped tea, eyes the same color. They gave her away, large in a small pale face. Sheepdog eyes, her older brothers had said, laughing.

Jen blinked and shook her head, found herself looking out of her own eyes again. Her father was cursing her, drawing back a hand to strike. Jen glared at him. His hand hung upraised, threatening, then fell and jammed into the waistband of his dirty breeches.

Once, he would’ve struck her for the look alone. Not now. Now, he only cursed again and spat a glob of phlegmy spittle that spattered on the dirt floor by her hand.

Rik made a sound that might’ve been an uneasy snicker. Their father whirled and descended upon him in a fury of slaps and curses.

Jen stiffened and drew breath for an angry shout, but the stranger spoke, as if only she were in the room. As if father and brothers were only a mummer’s show.

“Go get your things, girl,” he said quietly.

Jen went cold all over.

She couldn’t have gotten up, but Col came and tugged at her. “C’mon, Jen. C’mon.”

Somehow, she gained her feet. Her brothers’ room was full of smells: unwashed clothes, her father’s beery reek, a faint, smoky herbal scent that was new, that came from the stranger. Blank and numb, Jen let Col’s tugging hand pull her around the men and out.

She threw a glance at the dark tallow lamp on a barrel and flame sprang awake in it, throwing more shadow than light in the stone closet that was her room. She did not like to look at the shadows, so she looked instead at the shelf with her few belongings. Not much, not much to take.

Shaking, her hands moved to pile things on her blanket. Her single change of clothes, the battered, carved box that held her stones and bones and the few small treasures that had come her way over the three years she’d worked the markets and squares. Col sniffled and touched them: a chunk of purple quartz, an enameled brooch in blue and green, a tiny face carved of ivory with closed eyes. Of all of them, she most treasured the last. She took it out.

The ivory face on its length of twine rested in her palm, small and serene, a talisman of protection. While she was awake, its eyes were closed and it slept in her treasure box. But at night, she took it out and put it around her neck. It opened its eyes then, guarding so she could sleep.

She put the face back into its box, bundled the box into the blanket; all she owned.

Col’s eyes glittered in the light of the little lamp. Jen hesitated, biting her lip, then unwrapped the blanket again.

“Here.” She held the ivory face out to him. “Give it to Ma for me. Tell her—” She stared down at the carving. “Tell her to wear it for— For good dreams. Promise.”

“I promise,” Col whispered.

He stared down at the little face, then snatched it, darting out of Jen’s room like an escaping wild thing. The curtain swayed in his wake. After a moment, a hand appeared, long and fine, and moved the curtain aside. The stranger ducked under the doorframe, taller than she’d realized.

Crouched on her cot, clutching her small bundle of possessions to her, Jen looked up at him, too numb even for fear. He looked down on her too, distantly, like a cat.

At last, he held out his hand, clean, uncallused, graceful. “Come.”

To her dismay, Jen saw one hand untangle itself from her bundle and settle in his. Cool and strong, his fingers closed around hers. He drew her to her feet and through the door curtain.

The house she’d lived in all the fifteen years of her life looked like the rooms on street painters’ canvasses, scenes picked out in light and shadow. The main room opened in a dull orange glare of firelight. The rickety table and stools, the dirty straw on the floor, the crumbling daub of the walls all seemed suddenly dear.

But Jen’s father sat wide-legged on one of the stools, hands braced on knees. He stared at her a moment, then turned away. Her mother sat near the fire with her sewing in her lap, bent low to see in the poor light. Her hands shook over jagged stitches. Jen wanted to go to her, to put her arms around her mother’s neck as she hadn’t done since she was small, but the stranger drew her on.

So had her mother borne her other children leaving. The two oldest boys vanished to do whatever boys did when they were grown: join the soldiery or the crew of a ship or a gang of highwaymen. One girl sold—the man had said for guild labor; the other, the prettiest, with her broad hips and hair like a spill of honey down her back, gone to be the wife of a householder—a great triumph.

Their mother had kissed that daughter goodbye. Jen, sold like a heifer at market, like Dee, her next-oldest sister, would get no kisses.

But Jen had something the rest did not, what she used to make money. She gave a tiny smile as the stranger pulled the latch and opened the door, bringing her out onto the street, into the night.

She could throw a light that would blind him. She could hide behind illusion. Rik knew because she’d showed him, and her older brothers, too, boasting in the face of their boys’ arrogance. She would do those things, and this man would find his fine, cool fingers full of fire or spitting cat. Then she’d find a place to live where she could keep the money for herself. And perhaps, sleep without fear.

The man led on, a pillar of shadow, a brush of brocade robe against her arm. In the dark, her mind danced like the sun on water and magic glanced, gathering.

Suddenly, it seemed that sun sank into twilight. Something dimmed and stilled her thoughts.

Dreamlike, City streets unrolled before her: houses, lights and people, snorting horses, carriages clattering over stones. She seemed to drift among these things, though she could not say by what means. A gate rose before her, very tall, all curves and scrolls of wrought iron. Beyond it lay gardens, and a tall door carved with vines. She came to herself with a jolt.

The man was leading her across rugs in sea hues, across marble floors, cool under her bare dirty feet. Rich wood paneling and shimmering tapestries covered the walls; flames winked like watching eyes in lamps of brass and blown glass. Somehow she had slipped from the real world of stinking alleys and ragged clothes, and into some opulent Otherworld.

Another tall door opened and the stranger drew her into a single room larger than her whole house. Fear stirred like a sleeping animal, twitching, but she sank into the chair to which he guided her. He sat in the chair opposite and took her other hand.

She would have jerked away, but the impulse died like an ember beneath a smothering blanket. Her heart battered at her ribs, fighting to push its way up her throat, but a strange calm swaddled her. Distantly, she felt a chill sweat crawl across her skin.

The man’s dark eyes seethed with lights that had no outside source. The rich rugs, the soft chair, the hissing lamp-flames, all faded. Only those eyes, flashing with uncanny lightning, and the sensation of his fingers encircling hers, remained.

The whirlpool of his will drew her down, engulfed her. Jen struggled once, too late, then drowned in a flood of images.

The images were from her own life, the thoughts her own. They streamed across the curtain of her mind like a magic lantern show, accompanied by the symphony of thoughts and emotions. But a gaze watched over her shoulder, a murmuring purl of thought not her own spilled into her mind. She tried to wrench her inner eye around, to confront the watcher, but could not. Her mind’s eye, unlidded, stared helplessly at the swarming images.

Coppers dropped into a child’s dirty, upheld hand; games of sticks and stones played with brothers and sisters; pears and poultry stolen in clamorous markets. These shifted to darker scenes: gangs of jeering toughs, shopkeepers wielding sticks. As if she were dragged down into deep water, the darkness grew. She heard drunken cursing. A woman screaming. Panicking, she fought that darkness, knowing what lay at the bottom, in the oozing muck that invaded her dreams. Inexorable, the unseen watcher still watched.

Abruptly, she ceased her struggles and tried to blind those invading eyes with the blaze of her own powers. She filled her thoughts with fire. Fire lit darkness, repelled what struck in the night. She refused to turn to the memory that hunched, slavering, in the basement of her mind. The watcher could never see it. She could never bear that.

Jen fell against the cushioned back of the chair, her breath coming as fast as her heartbeat. The man still held her, gaze and hands, then the air around him seemed to shimmer, like heat rising from an oven. She must tear her hands from his grasp. Must flee, now, while she still could.

The shimmer expanded to envelop her.

She would’ve screamed, would have bitten and clawed, but could only sit in the chair, shivering, while that terrible shimmer permeated her. Her skin tingled as if with the forerunners of a lightning strike. That tingle measured her, then sank through to her very core.

Within, something changed. A power enclosed the flame that was her soul. A mind infiltrated hers with the delicacy and inescapability of air.

Terror broke free at last. With a wrench of will and muscle, she flung herself to her feet—

–and found herself in another room. She froze in fright and confusion.

The man was there too. “You will stay here,” he said, gesturing.

She turned as if he’d set a hand on her shoulder and turned her. Rugs of deepest blue patterned with blood-red covered a floor of polished wood. Drapes of the same colors fell from ceiling-height. Upholstered chairs and footstools, painted wardrobes and a high bed piled with pillows filled the space. In one corner, by the marble hearth, a copper tub sat steaming.

She couldn’t breathe. Her hands and face felt cold, cold with the realization of her bondage, cold with fear of what awaited her.

“Wash,” the man said. “Then dress and come downstairs. I’ll be waiting.”

The door clicked closed behind him. She sank down where she was, on the fine carpets of midnight and flame.


Chapter 1

Jen’s washstand creaked as she worked pestle in mortar, pounding gallalan leaves for a fertility potion. A sharp, feral scent made her head spin. She wrinkled her nose. Dull, petty magic, little better than witch’s charms, but simple enough she could do here, in her room. Her refuge, the one place in the house her master never came. Not since that first night five years ago, when he’d brought her here.

Jen.

She flinched at her master’s voice, unable to escape the deep, compelling whisper within her head. No magic of hers could bar it. She’d tried. Just as she’d tried to break the binding that held her here.

Now, her heart fluttered in her throat, odd for nothing more dreadful than a summons.

Then she heard it, the difference: her name. In all the years she’d been with him, he had never called her that. Only girl, always, from that first night in her father’s house.

Her hand shook, and pestle clinked against mortar. Yes, she replied.

Mind-voices couldn’t quaver, but she dreaded what shade of emotion hers might carry.

Come, her master commanded. I wish to speak with you.

Straightening shirt sleeves, smoothing boy’s breeches, she cast out her senses to find him, then rose to obey.

Even now, in her master’s house, where all knew she was not a boy, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to relinquish the disguise. The fine dresses in her wardrobe, the necklaces and earrings in her dressing table drawers gathered dust until some servant came in and took them away to replace them with what was currently in style. Her master said nothing of it, but always there were new dresses.

Jen hurried past the wardrobe, more ominous and suggestive today than it ever had been. Closing her door upon it, she paced the hall with its multitude of closed doors, past the staircase leading down to the parlor, the dining room, the kitchen. Another stairway, one that led up, lay at the end of the hallway, dimmer, narrower than the stair that led down. She’d stood at its foot many times, looking up, but had never climbed it. Had never been allowed to climb it.

There had been many such places in the house when she’d first come: doors that opened onto darkness, stairs that ended in midair, rooms that seemed lined with watching eyes. The gate that opened onto the outside world had frustrated every attempt at escape. No matter how high she had climbed, it was higher; no matter how tightly she squeezed between the bars, they closed tighter.

So had the house thwarted her. Even now, when her movements were much freer, she felt the house watching as she approached the stair at the end of the hall, felt its ponderous deliberation as she stopped at the bottom.

She put a booted foot on the lowest step. Air sighed past her, the house’s scenting breath. She took one step, put a foot on the next and climbed on, up the coil of stairs.

Windows passed in amber circles of bullseye glass that angled shafts of honey-colored light on stairs or wall. Jen counted windows, wondering if the house would make her climb until she gave up. It didn’t. She came to a landing a little wider than the door that gave onto it. Slowly, as if under water, she opened the door.

A small, round chamber met her gaze. Lining the walls were shelves crammed floor to ceiling with books, and tall point-arched windows whose diamond-paned casements had been flung open to the evening air. Rugs patterned in black and forest green lay beneath her feet. And in one of a pair of dark green upholstered chairs sat her master.

Jen bowed her head. “Lord.”

His stern lips twitched in the merest flicker of a smile. He beckoned. She took a single step nearer, no more. At his gesture, she eased into the other chair. It tried to swallow her, drawing her down into its soft cushions. Repressing an impulse to start to her feet again, she pulled herself forward until she perched on the edge.

Her master watched her, then said, “You must call me Barras.”

The hair on her neck prickled as if at a cold touch in the night. “Yes, Lord Barras,” she said, a small elusion, a small insistence of distance. Again, his smile flickered, but he only turned to the low table crouched on bowed legs between them. A cut glass decanter of wine and two glasses waited there. Two glasses. Her heart sped.

Her master poured wine and slid one glass toward her, an unprecedented cordiality. The glass glinted with ruby and garnet. At last she leaned forward, took it up. The wine sloshed; Jen steadied her betraying hand.

“So, Arajenei,” he said, “you wish to begin your masterwork.”

Her heart jumped. First Jen, now Arajenei. The name her mother had given her at birth, and unused since.

“Yes.”

He spoke of her masterwork as if she had spoken of it first. She hadn’t, only brooded in her high bed at night, alone with the moon and stars and the sentient breathing of the house. As he had known her name, so it seemed he knew her dreams, as well. She fought the impulse to rub her arms.

“How old are you now?” he said.

Her heart beat faster, and she swallowed once. “Twenty.”

“Already.”

His face was the same as she had first seen five years ago. The lines between the brows, those bracketing the mouth were the same, neither more nor deeper, the iron grey threads in the thick wavy dark hair no more numerous. But his gaze, ordinarily distant, fell upon her now with new interest that made her shrivel within herself.

“Five years my apprentice, and now ready to fly?”

She’d never been able to read him, and could not tell now whether she heard mockery or challenge.

“Yes,” she said again.

Unbidden, a thought slipped out: ready to fly free. Not a dream, but a hunger: freedom from the binding she could neither break nor escape. And with that freedom, safety.

He sipped wine. “There are all sorts of freedom,” he said, with insight—or intrusion—that by now Jen only resented. “You are young. You’ll find some bindings much more profound, much more difficult to break, than others.”

“But—” She closed her mouth on the rest.

“But,” her master prompted.

In the face of his gentleness, it burst forth in a rush, a noisome sticky stew long lidded and seething. “But why did you have to bind me? In the slums, I learned from the sorcerers and witches. I would’ve learned from you, too. But I can’t bear—”

She gulped down words, gazed into her wineglass, still full. No. She wouldn’t tell him that, the terrible dread of being so completely in another’s power.

He made no argument. He never did, his silence an implacable wall to her vain flutter.

“What would you do?” he inquired then.

“I thought I might open a gateway to one of the Otherworlds.” Her voice came out breathless.

When she’d read not long ago of the Otherworlds, Jen knew she’d found, at last, a means of escape. An Otherworld might take her beyond her master’s reach. And if he thought the conjuring of a gateway to an Otherworld was no more than her masterwork—

His dark brows drew down. Jen stopped the thought, unwilling to reveal her scheme to his wizard’s sensitivity.

He only made a dismissive gesture. “I should think there are challenges enough in this world. Should you fail, I have no wish to lose the time and training I’ve invested.”

He said nothing of the money he’d paid. Never that.

“I won’t fail.”

Again, that smile like a candleflame. “Journeyman wizard, seeking your fortune.”

He drained the remainder of his wine and rose. He paused by her chair, raised a hand as if to stroke her cheek. Her muscles wound tight, and she held her breath. For a moment, she felt the butterfly-wing tremor of his power upon her skin. The sensation faded, and his hand fell once more to his side.

“Let your hair grow, Jen,” he said softly, stepped into shadow and disappeared.

She sat frozen in the devouring chair for a moment more, then gulped down her wine. He’d asked how old she was. Told her to grow her hair. And now called her Jen.

She closed her eyes and shivered.

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